Schools worldwide achieve sustainability goals through data, experiential learning

Schools worldwide achieve sustainability goals through data, experiential learning


Winter 2019 | Written by Jeff Harder

Arc, the digital platform that tracks building performance in categories ranging from energy and water usage to occupant satisfaction, is a valuable tool for creating holistic, data-driven snapshots of the built environment, from standalone office buildings to entire communities. And lately, it’s found another enthusiastic audience in a surprising setting: the hallways of K-12 schools.

More than 200 schools around the world are using the platform for a range of purposes, whether straightforward benchmarking, underscoring the benefits of in-house sustainability efforts, or providing a streamlined path toward Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification and recertification.

With the emergence of new education standards seeking to engage students through experiential learning, Arc provides raw material for lessons applicable to a range of subject matter, from STEM to social studies. And since schools are focal points of their communities, Arc’s simple, transparent, out-of-100-points score can reach a range of public stakeholders, regardless of their fluency in sustainability matters.

“Arc is a tool that’s going to make it easier to communicate,” says Brittney Albin, sustainability coordinator for Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska. “There are a lot of different tools out there for measuring sustainability, but Arc moves beyond just utility bills and waste reports to provide a more complete snapshot of sustainability.”

The U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Center for Green Schools recently finished a year long program to understand how nine different school systems—a portfolio totaling some 90 different buildings—used and benefited from the Arc platform. “Each of these districts is really striving for continuous improvement, and that’s what Arc is all about,” says Phoebe Beierle, USGBC’s Green Schools Fellowship manager. Here, leaders from three of those school systems— the Carlisle Area School District in Pennsylvania, Missoula County Public Schools in Montana, and Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska—share their early experiences with Arc. The lessons that emerged transcend the classroom.

In Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Arc scores confirm the district’s emphasis on sustainability—LEED Gold Lamberton Middle School received a district-high score of 82.


If there are any doubts that the Carlisle Area School District—a Pennsylvania public school system about 40 minutes outside Harrisburg—is serious about sustainability, those doubts grow silent at the sight of its one-megawatt solar array. Comprising more than 5,000 panels spread across six acres, it’s among the largest public school-owned solar projects in the state and provides 16 percent of the 10-school district’s power needs. In some respects, the solar array is an extension of the classroom: Students can visit an online platform to track the performance of the system, which uses both monocrystalline and thin film panels, in different conditions. And since the solar array’s installation in 2010, an interest in sustainability has proliferated throughout the Carlisle Area School District, with rigorous recycling and energy saving programs, setting aside no-mow areas on campuses that revegetate with natural native flora for science students to examine, and teachers beginning to tie green initiatives into a range of classes.

“I don’t know if I’d call it a movement per se, but [sustainability] is something that people have embraced and that has blossomed over the years,” says Tom Horton, director of facilities for the district and a member of the newest group of Green School Scholars, a program run by the Center for Green Schools to provide professional development, coaching, and support to school districts in their sustainability journeys.

The Carlisle district’s forays with Arc began in 2017, growing out of Horton’s relationship with the Center for Green Schools. Getting the administration on board for the pilot program was easy. In 2014, the school system added the newly renovated LEED Platinum Wilson Middle School and the near-identical, 121,000-square-foot LEED Gold Lamberton Middle School to its building portfolio; the district is seeking LEED Operations and Maintenance (O+M) certification for its remaining eight schools. Since Carlisle Area School District had already been tracking resource usage with the Arc-compatible ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager, supplying a year’s worth of energy and water performance data for 10 schools was straightforward. Gathering waste data was only slightly more complicated, with Horton’s team creating an in-house, self-sustaining system to collect and calculate that information.

The biggest challenge (and a recurring theme among the inaugural class of Arc-embracing schools) was Arc’s emphasis on transportation and human experience. To carry out the data collection, a handful of students from a local university crafted a survey and gathered responses from the high school. Then they applied the lessons learned to survey across all schools in the district in 2018. “Last year’s survey was a test pilot for us,” Horton says. “It was a simple survey, but it was a harder concept for folks to understand, especially the [elementary school students] who might not know how far they rode the bus. But we used it as a teaching opportunity: some of them used the maps [function] in Arc to put in their address, put in the school address, and [it] spit out how far you traveled.”

Ultimately, the bottom-line Arc scores seemed to validate the district’s emphasis on sustainability. Lamberton Middle School received a district-high score of 82 and Wilson Middle School earned a score of 79, while the remaining schools registered scores between 65 and 78. When Horton looked more thoroughly at individual performance data, he was particularly encouraged with how his schools’ performance favorably compared with Arc’s database of global and local performance averages. “In each individual section, whether water or waste or energy, we’re typically ahead of the local and global [averages] no matter which one you pick,” Horton says.

And while the district is prioritizing Arc’s streamlined LEED O+M certification pathway through LEED v4.1, Horton and his curriculum-developing colleagues are also exploring novel ways to integrate Arc’s reams of performance data into the classroom. Lately, he’s taken a succession of meetings with the science department chair, and in spring 2019 a Carlisle High School science teacher will join Horton on the trip to the Green Schools Conference and Expo in Saint Paul, Minnesota, which is hosted by USGBC. Elsewhere, he’s supporting the growth of the high school’s green club, and finding ways to bring more sustainability education to students in the middle school so they can establish a foundation of knowledge to build on in their high school years.

“The future of the Arc program here is on the educational side,” Horton says. “That’s just beginning, and that’s what I’m pushing for.” And as Horton winds down his career, he sees Arc’s potential helping foster a wide-scale paradigm shift. It starts with empowering students. “They’re the ones who are going to go out and change the culture of their peers.”

Missoula’s Sentinel High School adoption of the Arc platform coincided with the remodel of the building by MMW Architects. The renovation is expected to include a STEM center.


At Sentinel High School in Missoula, Montana, Ben Cummins is trying to spur a cultural shift of his own. Cummins teaches earth and space science and engineering, and he weaves sustainability concepts into his lesson plans. He also advises Sentinel’s Eco Club, a student organization that promotes environmental initiatives on campus, like its solar phone-charging and recycling stations; and he remains a dauntless grassroots advocate for sustainability, even though it means his days usually end long after the final bell. “If people on the facilities and management side [in other schools using the Arc platform] are looking at it from a top-down point of view, I’m looking at from an, ‘I’m one person, how can I change the world’ point of view,” Cummins says.

His school’s adoption of the Arc platform coincided with a major capital project. In 2015, Missoula County Public Schools passed a bond that allocated $13 million for a substantial renovation at Sentinel High School. The renovation is expected to include the addition of a STEM center, prompting Cummins to join the design committee and offer input.

The more Cummins learned, the more intrigued he became with Arc’s transparent, rigorous approach, and it seemed a nice alternative for collecting data to use in the classroom. “Being primarily a science guy, I love data-driven projects, and this seemed like a great way for myself and my students to look at the overall health of a building,” he says. And as his relationship with the Center for Green Schools blossomed—like Horton, Cummins is part of the current class of Green School Scholars—he leapt at the chance to join the Center’s program and examine his school through a new lens. Sentinel is also part of School as a Teaching Tool, another Green Schools Pilot program.

In Missoula, meeting Arc’s standards of accuracy required clearing high hurdles. In fall 2017, Cummins and his students in the Eco Club began sourcing and inputting a year’s worth of data into Arc from scratch. The group collected and scrutinized pages upon pages of energy bills—there are more than 15 meters tied in to the school—devised a small-scale waste-auditing program, and surveyed roughly 1,400 staff and students on their transportation habits and satisfaction with their experiences in the building. Simply getting ahold of this data was a huge challenge for one man whose full-time job is at the head of a classroom. Ultimately, Cummins declined to reveal the performance score of his school because it needs a wholesale revision. The transportation survey, for example, was flawed from electronic survey shenanigans: “a kid basically said, ‘I drove my tank 1,000 miles to school,’ and my data just got wrecked,” he says.

Still, Cummins is optimistic about the potential for the platform in helping him realize some of his goals in delivering a more robust education in sustainability. “One of my goals was to change the culture around sustainability at our school,” Cummins says. “Another of my goals is to incorporate sustainability into not just science and math, but also drama, wood shop, engineering—I think you can take sustainability in any route, whatever the subject might be.”

For instance, Arc could help measure the influence of the school’s bike-walk-bus week, priority carpool parking, and other initiatives through the transportation scores. And with a major renovation looming, it’s an opportune time to look at Sentinel High School with Arc’s unique metrics: human experience surveys calculated pre- and post-construction could show correlations in how a new built environment improves occupant satisfaction.

Cummins says he expects the platform’s integration in the school to fully come to fruition with the renovation. He imagines a TV monitor in the lobby displaying the building’s Arc score, where every student can see the digits change, and he envisions Arc taking a broader role in the district, with students in different schools competing to see who can raise their score higher. “There are very similar motives around sustainability here—I’ve had more than a few people come over and say, ‘I really appreciate what you’re doing,’” Cummins says. “Hearing that makes you feel good from an individual standpoint. But I know I’m not alone.”

Sentinel High School teacher Ben Cummings advises Sentinel’s Eco Club, a student organization that promotes environmental initiatives on campus.


By the time Brittney Albin became sustainability coordinator for Lincoln Public Schools (LPS) in 2016, sustainability had become a fixture in the 42,000-student, 57-school district in Nebraska. First, there is the district’s long-running recycling program. Then there is a composting program that, at the moment, diverts more than 40 percent of its waste from landfills; some individual schools register rates above 70 percent. Albin’s Green Schools Recognition program now awards sustainability funding to persons carrying out a litany of impact-reducing efforts within the school system.

When the Center for Green Schools—Albin’s go-to resource for guidance since she first joined LPS part-time in 2014 as a recycling coordinator—approached Albin about adding LPS to its program, she was curious to see what the data would reveal about her schools’ approach to sustainability. And beyond finding areas to improve its sustainability performance, Arc could offer meaningful praise for a job well done. “We’re really trying to have programs and structures in place that foster sustainability in our schools,” says Albin. “So, how do we make this part of the value of the building?”

When LPS began recording data in the platform during the 2017-18 school year, the forward-thinking district was in prime position to measure an initial portfolio of 16 schools. Besides using the Arc-aligned ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager to track energy and water use, LPS had been tallying its waste with Excel spreadsheets since the late 1990s. The district was particularly advanced in analyzing air quality: Its environmental department takes regular VOC and CO2 measurements. As part of the district’s inaugural experience with Arc, the department trained Albin’s two-intern sustainability team and handed them air quality duties.

The biggest challenge, in Lincoln as elsewhere, was getting honest, accurate feedback for Arc’s transportation and human experience components. “You can’t get around it: If we only asked the staff it wouldn’t meet the threshold to generate a score, and we wanted to include all of the students in this,” Albin says. In one instance that further engaged students, Albin worked with a class of seventh-graders, who visited classrooms throughout their school to deliver a presentation about Arc and walk their peers through filling out the two-question survey.

While some buildings are still finalizing survey data, Arc’s early returns are promising. Kloefkorn Elementary registered an Arc score of 82—the highest in the school’s buildings portfolio—while the lowest-performing school registered a still-impressive score of 70 points. (An important note: For schools that are not seeking LEED O+M certification, like the ones within LPS’s jurisdiction, an Arc score is measured out of a total of 90 points.)

Lincoln Public Schools provide an important setting for environmental education, allowing students to explore innovative ways to use the planet’s resources efficiently.

“To be honest, it’s not surprising that we have some high scores—we have a lot of great things going on—but I am surprised at how high some of the scores are,” Albin says. A closer look at the data reveals interesting starting points for exploration: Two elementary schools with precisely the same floor plans, for example, received slightly different scores. “That gives us a chance to dive in and say, is this coming from transportation? Are people experiencing different levels of satisfaction? Is something going on with the equipment in these buildings? You can design a building a certain way, but when you put people in it, it can perform a little differently.”

And while finding ways to weave the platform into the curriculum remains a work in progress—two LPS middle schools are part of Schools as Teaching Tools, another, ongoing Center for Green Schools pilot program finding ways to connect Arc with classroom learning —Arc data has found an unusual home: in social studies classes. “A lot of people think about sustainability and science curriculums, but with transportation and thinking about how people move from place to place, and how what’s going on here might compare to another country, the social studies tie-in made sense for several of our schools,” Albin says.

LPS’s experiences emphasize a key point about Arc’s approach to measuring sustainability in the built environment: It should go beyond counting kilowatt hours and calculating compost to find the correlations between building performance and the habits and health of occupants. For students, Arc’s singular contribution might be connecting the dots—and making sustainability feel meaningful enough that students feel driven to make a difference. “We’re a school district: We want to tap into the energy of the students and the staff, to help them take ownership of what’s going on,” Albin says. “This is a great way to start this conversation.”

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